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The Single Most Important Crop for Ending World Hunger

Most of the hungry in the world (92%) have enough food for survival, but not enough food for good health. They have some type of staple crop, such as rice, corn, or another grain, or a root vegetable (yam, cassava, etc.). These staple crops provide plenty of carbs, and some protein, but very little dietary fat. The other foods typically eaten by persons suffering from hunger are also generally low in fat: a few fruits and vegetables, some legumes. Of the three macronutrients, the hungry have the greatest need for fat, a significant need for more protein, but not much need for carbs.

The most effective crop for ending world hunger, then, would be the crop that provides the highest chufa-tigernut2production of dietary fat for any given area of land. According to my analysis of over 120 potential staple crops (Chart 1 here), chufa — also called tigernut — is by far the best producer of dietary fat. Here’s the same chart, reorganized in order of kilograms of dietary fat produced per hectare per year: Dietary Fat Crops (image file).

Three potential yields are given. The high yield is a typical commercial yield of chufa in southern Spain with irrigation and fertilizer: 14 metric tonnes per hectare (MT/ha). The moderate (11 MT/ha) and low yields (8 MT/ha) are attainable without irrigation and with limited inputs (fertilizer, etc.). Even at the low end of yields, chufa out produces peanut and palm oil. At a moderate yield, chufa produces twice as much fat as peanut or palm. At the high end of yields, chufa is by far the most efficient crop for production of dietary fat.

The oil pressed from chufa (a tuber, like a small hard potato) is a light color with a light taste. It is acceptable for use in almost any cuisine in the world. The oil keeps well without refrigeration. It is an excellent oil for use in the developing world.

I have purchased and used chufa oil (tigernut oil) in my food. The cold-pressed oil is a light golden color, a little darker than canola oil, much like the “light” type of olive oil. The taste, even when consumed by itself from a spoon, is very mild. When added to food, it does not alter the taste of the meal at all. Many oils, when cold pressed, have a strong taste and need further processing to be acceptable to the commercial marketplace. Chufa oil does not need additional processing to alter its taste or color, making it less expensive than other oils to produce.

The chufa plant is hardy, and can endure cool weather as well as hot weather. It can grow with a modest amount of rainfall. It can also withstand heavy rains and standing water.

However, chufa is not currently one of the top world sources of dietary fat. It is grown mainly in Spain, for use in a drink similar to soymilk called Horchata. The oil is available commercially, but is uncommon. Some time, effort, and investment money needs to be applied to this crop, to develop it as a major world oil crop.

Given sufficient additional dietary fat, a large portion of the hungry would no longer be in a state of hunger. Just 4 tablespoons (2 fl. oz.) of oil per day adds nearly 500 kcal to the diet, and meets the nutritional need for daily intake of dietary fat. As I estimate in my book Hunger Math, 4 tablespoons of oil added to the daily diet would reduce the number of persons in a state of hunger by about half. That’s several hundred million persons no longer hungry.

How much oil would be needed? For each person given 2 fl. oz. (4 T) per day, we would need 730 oz. per year, which is 21.6 liters. Converting to kg, oil has a density of 0.92 compared to water. A liter of water is one kilogram, so a liter of oil is 0.92 kg. Oil floats because it is lighter than water. So 21.6 liters converts to 19.872 kg of oil per person per year. Let’s round that figure up to 20 kg of oil per person per year. That amount of fat is not intended to be the sole source of dietary fat; if it were, it would provide about 20% of total daily calories (at 2400 kcal/day).

For each set of 100 million hungry persons per year, we would need to produce 2 million metric tonnes (MT) of oil. How much land would be needed? At a moderate yield of 11 MT per hectare, each 4 month crop would produce 3.3 MT of oil (30% of 11 MT). This would require 606 thousand ha of land. Let’s round that up to 610,000 ha of land.

The U.S. uses about 14 million ha of land each year to grow corn (maize) — just for use in livestock feed. Then we use about another 12 million ha of land to grow corn for biofuel (ethanol). That’s 26 million hectares of land. With less than 2.4% of that land, we could lift 100 million hungry persons out of hunger by growing chufa. With only 12% of that land, we could grow enough dietary fat from chufa to feed 500 million persons. How many persons can be given sufficient dietary fat from the land used to grow corn for ethanol (12 million ha)? That land would produce about 40 million MT of chufa oil, which can feed 2 billion persons per year.

We could take half the land used to grow corn just for biofuel, just in the U.S. (6 million ha), and produce enough dietary fat for every hungry person in the world, with some leftover. We could then use the rest of that land, another 6 million ha, to grow carbs and protein for the hungry.

Why are we using so much arable land and agricultural resources for fuel ethanol? We could reduce world hunger by more than half using just the land we now use to grow corn for biofuel. And that land would only be used for that good purpose for 4 months of the year.

How much would that cost? We grow about 127.5 million MT of corn in 2011 to produce 14.5 billion gallons of fuel ethanol. Over the last 6 months, the commodity price of corn has been less than $175.00 U.S. dollars per metric tonne. The cost for that amount of corn is just over 22.3 billion dollars. But we are not buying corn. That figure simply tells us the value of the land used to produce that corn, over a period of 4 months. And it gives us a rough estimate of the money it would cost to grow other foods on that land. Corn is fairly lucrative as a crop, so we would not be underestimating the cost.

We would be giving up 22.3 billion dollars’ worth of corn, to feed the hungry. The U.S. spends ten times that amount just on interest on the national debt. We spend more than 25 times that amount on our defense budget. And we spent an estimated 3 trillion dollars on the Iraq war. So 22 billion dollars is a small price to pay to reduce word hunger by about half.

— Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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